Note: I haven’t researched the history and culture behind Indonesian Shadow Puppets. What I written here is what was told to me by a tour guide and may not be wholly correct.
The shadow puppet is an Indonesian performance art that dates back several generations. This classic art form consists of an 8 hour long puppet show that is acted out by a single puppet master who plays all the roles. The puppeteers assistant will change puppets in and out from an inventory of puppets as the show progresses.
Each puppet is usually made of bison skin, although you can also find wooden versions as well. The bison skin is very tough and resembles a flexible plastic… it reminds me of a soft plastic notebook cover. The bison skin is cut and carved into a character. One of the tools used to do the carving started life as a bicycle spoke, which was cut and filed to become a gouge. The head, body, and legs of the puppet are one piece with a stick attached. The arms have two pivot points (shoulder and elbow) and each hand has a stick attached as well. The puppet is also very finely painted. Every shape, color, and pattern is symbolic of a character or an element of life.
The characters and stories are all derived from the ancient Hindu texts of the Ramayana, with some Indonesian modifications. There are a few hundred stories, each lasting 8 hours as a show. The puppetmaster has memorized all the stories and makes different voices for each of the characters. The stories are instructions on how to live life.
The irony of the puppet show is that these very beautiful and intricately carved and painted puppets is hidden behind a screen during the performance. The reason for this is symbolic: it invites the viewer to seek truth. The other irony is that the stories are all told in Javanese. This is the original language of Indonesia, which has been replaced by A new Indonesian language. Most people in Indonesia do not speak Javanese and therefore do not understand the puppet show stories.